“Unleash the Flavor” has been Thirsty Dog’s motto since their beginning in 1997. They’ve gone through some changes, a few hiccups, and a lot of growth in those sixteen years, but are now going strong and continuing to unleash new flavors.
Starting in Canton, Ohio with a brewpub and expanding with brewpubs in Dayton and Akron in 1999, Thirsty Dog struggled a bit in the early years, even while continuing to make good beer and bring home medals from the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. The brewpubs closed in 2005, management changed, and their beer was contract brewed until 2007 when the new brewery opened in Akron.
Owner, John Najeway was able to convince brewer Tim Rastetter to return to Northeast Ohio. Rastetter has a history of brewing in Northeast Ohio, having formerly worked at Great Lakes Brewing Company as head brewer and then at the now defunct Liberty Street Brewing in Akron. He then moved to Kentucky and designed and built a 15-barrel brewhouse for Brewworks, which subsequently went out of business in 1998. Then Rastetter began brewing for the Hofbrau Haus near Cincinnati, the first one outside of Munich, Germany. Meanwhile the Brewworks brewing system was sitting unused. Najeway acquired the system and brought Rastetter back to Akron to set it up, be the Head of Brewing Operations, and breathe new life into Thirsty Dog. Now, six years, and several expansions later (including a tasting room), they have a brew crew of eight people and brew three batches a day, seven days a week. Occasionally they run 24/7 to keep up with the demand, and will hit about 12,000 barrels per year this year, a 30% growth over last year.
Demand for their beer has been growing at a 30-35% rate over the last four years, much faster than they anticipated. They are in the process of renovating a couple of 1870s era buildings adjacent to the brewery to make room for more expansion. An old icehouse is now ready to be used for additional warehousing and storage, while other areas of the building are still being renovated. A recent tour of the construction site revealed Wolf Creek running in a cave under the building…the source of water for the old Burkhardt Brewery back in the 18 and early 1900s.
The reason for all this growth? It’s all about the beer, of course! To Rastetter, “Unleash the Flavor” means balance and complexity. No matter what beer he talks about, the word balance seems to always come up. “Balance is a big thing,” he says. “It’s the thing that makes people want to drink another, after they’ve had one. And I don’t do simple plain beers, I brew beers with complex character.”
Let’s just take a look at some of their recent offerings. Raildog is a smoked black lager. They are quick to tell you it is not a schwarzbier. It is a higher gravity beer with more malts to balance the smokiness. They smoked their own malts with cherry and apple wood, and hand roasted the malts for the toastiness. It’s a well-balanced (there’s that word again), not too smoky lager.
Then there is their first IPA called Citra Dog…for the citra hops, of course. At about 95 calculated IBU’s it is the hoppiest of their beers. The citra hops aren’t as “grapefruity” as some, and have a sweeter, almost tangerine aroma, which Rastetter says draws people toward it. It’s different from most IPAs, but that’s exactly what Rastetter was aiming for.
The beer he really raved about is their bourbon barrel aged wee-heavy, called Wulver. Some have said this is the best barrel-aged beer they have ever had, reported Rastetter. It’s a sipper at 12% ABV, but a fantastic complex beer, and, again balanced so as not to have too much bourbon flavor.
Thirsty Dog has quite a barrel aging program now. Currently they have over 100 beers aging in barrels. Some in whiskey barrels, some in wine barrels. Barrel aging of sour ales is also something relatively new with Thirsty Dog, and something that few breweries are doing. They currently have a release of Cerasus Dog, a Flanders style red, in 500 ml. bottles, and in December they will release a Belgian saison aged in Chardonnay barrels with lactobacillus added.
The 12 Dogs of Christmas is Thirsty Dog’s best selling beer. It, too, has seen about a 30-35% growth year over year. As Rastetter was head brewer at Great Lakes Brewing, that also has a best-selling Christmas Ale, the rumors have spread over the years that the recipe for 12 Dogs is from Great Lakes. Rastetter says that is not true and explains. When he was there, he wanted to make some changes to the recipe. He was told that it was selling fine, and no changes were allowed. When he subsequently went to Liberty Street Brewing Co, he created his own recipe with a spice profile similar to the GLBC recipe, but incorporated the changes he had wanted with a completely different hop and malt profile, different yeasts, and added nutmeg, making it a more complex and, dare I say it, balanced beer. That is essentially the recipe he uses today at Thirsty Dog. So, it is not at all the same recipe, but does have the cinnamon, ginger, honey profile that the GLBC beer has. I urge you to compare the two and see what you think. Also try their barrel-aged 12 Dogs available in 1.5 liter magnums.
When asked if there was anything new to look forward to, both Rastetter and Najeway mentioned a new project they are embarking on (no pun intended) with the Akron Art Institute. The AAI wants to have a beer exclusive to their café that complements their current exhibit, which at the moment is “Multiplicity.” Right up Rastetter’s alley, he’s excitedly working on a recipe with more than three malts, more than three hops, more than three hop additions, and more than three yeasts. Do you think that’ll be complex? How about tricky to balance? And this is just the first of many beers… and maybe one of the reasons John Najeway says “This is a job I just love to get up and come to.”
Najeway says Rastetter is a huge asset not only to Thirsty Dog, but to the brewing community as a whole. He does a wonderful job and has trained all the crew, most of whom are home brewers. The crew, which now includes Adam Stull as Head Brewer and Brandon Benson as QC Biologist, continues to push the envelope with new beers and old favorites…and of course “unleashing the flavor.”